September 25, 2006

When Quakers meet Mennonites

Over the weekend on Saturday, I awoke before dawn, ignored the cat, got dressed, and quietly left the house to head to the retreat center where I would meet a group of Mennonites. The pastor had asked me to speak with them for twenty minutes about the Quaker model of decision-making prior to the group's delving into larger questions that they themselves face.

Here's what I feel good about:

  • Releasing myself, at first, from the idea of having only twenty minutes to present, and instead letting myself write notes at several different times to see what arose, and then holding all of those scratch papers prayerfully and asking for Help to know what to lift up.

  • The handout I pulled together, which included a few quotes about the grounding of Quaker business practice, a very short glossary, a distinction between secular and Quaker process (see Michael Birkel's Silence and Witness, pp. 68-69), and a chart-matrix that describes how degrees of disunity and unity are articulated by individuals, expressed by the corporate body, and reflected by the clerk.

  • My asking to be invited to "speak out of the silence," so that I could have one last chance to quiet myself and pray that I might be faithful.

  • Yielding to a strong prompt I had felt, to caution the group against simply transplanting into their Mennonite tradition the Quaker practice of a God-centered, unity-seeking decision-making process.

  • This last point caught me off-guard, since I wasn't sure if this was an item I should lift up... but there it was, coming out of my mouth. I saw a few head-nods among the group, including from the pastors, so I take that as a good sign.

    I had already described the theological foundation of our business practice, that there is one Light that can be known directly by each of us, and therefore we, as Friends, seek and listen for God together. But I had a feeling that there was more to the Mennonite tradition that could inform their own move away from a Roberts Rules of Order voting model, and I wanted to encourage them to learn about their own history and practice.

    Later I would find out that this particular group of Mennonites, at least, has many members who hail from different faith traditions and that the Mennonites historically were "highly schismatic." ...Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

    Here's what I don't feel so good about:

  • I didn't have anyone travel with me as a spiritual support person. Those who I would typically call on were either dealing with the death of a parent or were out of town. Plus, I was reluctant to ask for someone to get up early on a Saturday, drive more than an hour to the retreat site for that short of a presentation, and then drive back.

  • I underestimated how intensely focused I would be, which left me exhausted as a result. I also didn't know until I was at the retreat that I was expected to listen to some small-group reports and identify what might be "next steps" for this particular Mennonite congregation, in terms of their moving away from a conventional voting model. The listening that was asked of me was "acute," meaning I felt tapped by the Spirit in a way that required of me an intense level of focusing to which I am not typically accustomed.

  • All that said, would I do it again? Absolutely!

    I felt well-used and appreciated; I felt like I was faithful.

    Later this week, one of the pastors and I will get together to reflect on the experience. By that time, he will have heard a bit from the congregation about their own take on how things went.

    The interesting thing is, there are now four of us from the worship group who have direct connections to this particular Mennonite congregation: two of us have done presentations with them; and two others (a couple) had worshiped there for about a year before discovering the worship group. (They happened to have been at the retreat as well, given their earlier commitment to attend.)

    Not to mention that where the worship group meets and where the Mennonite's church building is are within blocks of each other. ...I wonder what else God may have in store for all of us...



    Gregg Koskela said...

    Liz, thanks for this example of being faithful to God and of service to others. I see God unifying faith communities in our little town as well, and hope that will be a positive thing where you are.

    Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

    It sounds as if you used your twenty minutes well, coming with heart and mind prepared and acting in obedience. I truly don't think twenty minutes is nearly enough to engender comprehension in your listeners, but if they're really interested they might ask you to come back and do a workshop.

    I too am sorry you didn't have a spiritual support person (an elder, in the old terminology, to go with you as you traveled in the ministry). I greatly appreciated the difference such companionship made in my journey to Virginia, on the few days when I actually had it. But the companionship isn't necessary; it's only highly desirable.

    The fatigue is natural and inevitable. Even Jesus felt drained by his ministry!

    Mark Wutka said...

    It fills me with joy to read not only of your experience, but of your faithfulness. As for your reluctance to call someone to travel such a distance for a short presentation, I would just encourage you to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit in this to know whether it is right or not. Although the drive might be difficult, it is possible that there is someone who wants to be a spiritual support but may be hesitant to make themselves available for a long retreat. A short session might be what they need to get over their hesitation.
    With love,

    Chris M. said...


    Thanks for this record of your experience.

    And, any chance you could share your handout with San Francisco Friends? I'm supposed to co-lead a presentation on "Quakerly decisionmaking" for the parents asssociation of the Friends School in mid-October. You know how to reach the M.'s. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

    -- Chris M.

    Liz Opp said...

    Thanks for these kind comments, everyone.

    A few more brief reflections:

    1. I have begun hearing a difference between the word "elder" and "spiritual support person" or "travel companion." Namely, the first carries out a function within a monthly meeting and not just for a specific minister or task; and the second and third focus on a specific minister and presentation or activity. I'm no doubt oversimplifying, but that's the gist as far as I understand it for the time-being.

    2. It's true: I didn't feel any nudge to invite a Friend to travel with me; maybe that is enough. And I certainly have this experience to draw on for the future.

    3. I'm happy to email a pdf file (or mail a hard copy) of the handout I created, if anyone is interested. Requests can be emailed to me at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.


    Kody Gabriel said...

    I have a question to ask, and can't think of another way to contact you. Is there an e-mail address I could use?

    Liz Opp said...

    Kody and others -

    I can be reached by email at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.


    Nancy A said...

    I like the Mennonites. I used to go to a Mennonite Church in the last city I lived in whenever there was too much snow to drive out to the Quaker meetinghouse. I still get the MCC magazine and support MCC with monthly donations. Our local meeting is trying to organize a Quaker-Mennonite worship group on the local university campus. So far, only one taker (Quaker), so we need to get more names.

    I have been asked to speak to the Unitarian children's program for three consecutive weeks on Quakerism in NOvember. I'll think about your comments as I prepare.

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